Between 1967 and 1982, Hollywood was exposed to a new style of movie making. The studio system still existed, but the new breed of directors and actors were more influenced by European new wave and the counter culture trends. The failure of big budget extravaganzas like Cleopatra, Dr.Dolittle, Hello Dolly, Waterloo put Hollywood on the back foot. The youth of that period were totally exposed to Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, Kurosawa and at the same time thanks to Vietnam, Watergate , a sort of cynicism ran across the country. The old style of Hollywood just did not appeal to the audiences.It was during this time that a new breed of artistes emerged. They were part of the studio system, but at the same time did not allow the studios to hijack their creativity. Directors like Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola were some of the pioneers of that era.
Jack Nicholson was one of the foremost actors who shot into fame around that time. Along with Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino he would gain fame for playing roles of intense and serious characters. Like many others he appeared in a host of B movies, and also attempted writing without much success. It was however a 1969 road movie, which has since then become a cult classic and a counter culture icon, that would give him his first major break.
Easy Rider(1969 ) was a movie about two friends Wyatt and Billy, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper respectively, are two bikers who set out to rediscover the American dream. The movie in effect was a satiric look at the American society and it’s values. Jack played the role of an alcoholic lawyer who befriends the bikers, and becomes a junkie himself. The movie was a sort of a biker,road movie with a black comedy tone. Jack started his trek to stardom with this movie.
It was 1970’s Five Easy Pieces , that made Jack Nicholson a major star. He plays Bobby Dupea, who belongs to a family of well known musicians. Fed up with his sheltered cloistered life, he leaves home to work as an oil rigger in a small town. He is forced to pay a visit to his family, along with his waitress girlfriend, and his subsequent experiences is what the movie is about.Jack gives an outstanding performance as the drifter, prodigal son, and he is memorable in the restaurant scene where engages in the famous chicken salad dialogue with the waitress. This was the role which made him a major star.
In 1974 he came in Roman Polanski’s film noirish thriller, Chinatown , as Jake JJ Gites , a private detective. He investigates a scandal in the Water Works department of L.A city, and the movie has all elements of a noir classic- dark tone and atmosphere, slow pace, violent action, complex layers and enough twists. A memorable movie, and one of Jack’s greatest performances.
It was 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , which would put him right up there as one of the most formidable acting talents. Jack plays role of Randall Murphy , a small time crook, who feigns insanity and finds himself in an asylum. He unfortunately has to fight a prolonged battle with the head of the asylum, Nurse Ratchet( Louise Fletcher) who is a total tyrant. Pretty dark and tragic, the movie also has wonderful moments of bonding with fellow inmates, especially with a schizophrenic Indian called Chief. Nicholson is first rate, especially in the scene where he feigns insanity, or during his numerous face offs with the head, and he deservedly won the Best Actor award.
His 1976 pairing with his idol Marlon Brando, in the Missouri Breaks , a western, was however to end in total disaster.
One of Jack Nicholson’s most chilling performance was in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining . He is Jack Torrance , an alcoholic former teacher, who takes up a job at Overland Hotel , inspite of warnings about it’s pretty unsavory past. Strange events in the hotel, make him lose sanity, and turn on his own family members. Jack’s portrayal of the half crazed psycho, does make your hairs stand on an end. He is homicidal, insane and crazy. You certainly would not want to be stuck up in a remote hotel with him. One of the most scary villains, on par with Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lecter .
1983 saw Nicholson breaking from his psychic, dark image in Terms of Endearment opposite Shirley Maclaine . As an ex astronaut, who befriends single mom Maclaine and has an affair with her, Nicholson , puts in another excellent performance for which he was given the Best Supporting Actor.
Most of the 80’s saw Nicholson coming up with a host of strong, solid performances. The Postman Always Rings Twice, itself a remake of a 1946 movie. Jack plays a drifter Frank Chambers who has an adulterous affair with a married woman Cora( Jessica Lange). Both of them plan to murder her husband. This movie was also famous for the steamy scenes between Jack and Jessica Lange.
He played the role of American writer Eugene O Neill in the 1981 movie Reds , about American communist leader John Reed( Warren Beatty). He also did a comic turn in the 1987 movie Witches of Eastwick , as a devil incarnate Darrly Van Honne , who seduces the witches who created him. The same year he appeared opposite Meryl Streep in the Depression era drama, Ironweed , as Francis Phelan , an alcoholic ex baseball player who roams around with another drifter Helen played by Streep.
The next couple of years saw Jack move into strong character roles, and end up more often than not stealing the scenes. Batman in 1989 , saw him as The Joker, and that remained one of the greatest performances as a villain. Jack Torrance and now Joker, this guy sure can make evil look attractive. But again Jack Torrance was real and more scary, on the other hand the Joker was more of a comic character. His was the over the top villainy, which more often than not made you chuckle, and Jack was the life of Batman , so much, that people saw the movie more for him, than the super hero.
In 1992 Jack did another of his scene stealer acts in A Few Good Men , where in a negative role, he stole the show from Tom Cruise , as Col Nathan Jessep, a US Army officer who covers up a murder. His outburst in the “You cant handle the truth son” scene ranks as one of the greatest.
His next biopic Hoffa directed by his friend Danny De Vito , about the controversial trade union leader Jimmy Hoffa, was however a critical and commercial dud, followed by disappointments like Wolf and Mars Attacks .
And just when we thought that we had the seen the best of Jack, he comes up again with a superb performance in 1997’s As Good as It Gets , as a paranoid, cantankerous, homophobic writer Melvin Uddal . Funny, sympathetic, cranky, sensitive, paranoid, Jack gives one of the finest performances which would stay with you forever. He thoroughly deserved the Best Actor award for that movie.
Usually noted for his often over the top acting, Jack Nicholson, came up with a restrained subtle performance in About Schmidt(2002) , as a retired insurance official, who has to question his own life, and attend the wedding of his daughter to a guy he never liked. Watch his expressions at the last day of his work, when he knows he will retire soon, and he strikes a chord somewhere with you. As also when he tries to dissuade his daughter from marrying the guy she loves.
And of course the dark, cynical, Jack of old was back in 2006’s The Departed as mob boss Frank Costello , giving a total knockout performance. But somehow I fail to understand how he was not even nominated for this. But then nothing will change the fact, that Jack Nicholson a.k.a Frank Costello a.k.a Melvin Uddal a.k.a Jack Torrance a.k.a The Joker will always remain one of the greatest actors from Hollywood.